What do Satanists believe?

The Economist/January 8, 2014

In November 2012 a stone monument inscribed with the Ten Commandments was placed on the the grounds of Oklahoma's state capitol. Seven years earlier, in Van Orden v Perry, the United States Supreme Court ruled that a Ten Commandments monument placed on the Texas state capitol grounds did not violate the First Amendment's clause forbidding government from making any law "respecting the establishment of religion". But now other religions want in too: in December the Satanic Temple launched a campaign to place a monument of its own next to the Ten Commandments, reasoning that it would give Oklahomans "the opportunity to show that they espouse the basic freedoms spelled out in the Constitution". They wanted to raise $20,000 by January 18th; they have already surpassed that goal. On Monday, they unveiled their monument's design (pictured): a winged creature with the torso of a man, the head of a goat and horns sits on a throne beneath a Pentagram, two fingers sagely raised as two tow-headed children look on in wonder. Satanists, it seems, have a sense of humour. But what do they actually believe?

That turns out to be a difficult question to answer. You will be unsurprised to hear that Satanists are a rather fractious bunch, with many different organisations, beliefs and rituals. Many of these organisations are wholly or partly occult, with much hidden from non-adherents. Some are spiritualists: they worship Satan as a deity. Adherents of the Joy of Satan Ministries, for instance, "know Satan/Lucifer as a real being", and believe he is "the True Father and Creator God of humanity". Others—notably the Church of Satan, founded by Anton LaVey, the most renowned occultist since Alesteir Crowley; and the Satanic Temple—are materialist, and reject belief in supernatural beings. Lucien Greaves, a spokesman for the Satanic Temple, describes himself as "an atheist when it comes to supernatural beliefs", and says that for him Satanism stands for "individual sovereignty in the face of tyranny, and the pursuit of knowledge even when that knowledge is dangerous." LaVey's "Satanic Bible" proclaims "Life is the great indulgence—death the great abstinence! Therefore make the most of the HERE AND NOW!...Choose ye this day, this hour, for no redeemer liveth!"

Despite these differences, certain commonalities link many spiritual and materialist branches of Satanism: namely a belief that the worship of a supernatural deity—and the ecclesiastical structure that evolved to support such worship—places needless restrictions on human knowledge and progress; and a belief in science, rationality and learning, without restrictions. Peter Gilmore, LaVey's successor as head of the Church of Satan, distinguishes between "carnal people and spiritual people": he believes the latter need a "spooky daddy in the sky", whereas he is "happy being the center of [his] universe". In this sense, materialist Satanism seems close to, if not indistinguishable from, organised atheism, or perhaps atheism with rituals. But Mr Gilmore says his church uses Satan in the original Hebrew sense as "The Adversary"—"a figure who will stand up and challenge". Satan in this sense becomes a sort of literary figure or metonymy for challenging orthodoxy, rather than an evil or bloodthirsty god.

All of this is considerably less headline-grabbing than animal sacrifice or ritual murder. And, of course, some have been convicted of horrific acts nominally committed for or connected with Satan. But these are hardly the first murders committed in a religion's name, nor is there any evidence to suggest that these killers are more representative of Satanism than other religiously-inspired killers are of their faiths. Yet somehow one imagines that such arguments will fail to sway Oklahoma's legislators into allowing a giant, goat-headed, pentagrammed statue to sit next to a monument of the Ten Commandments.

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